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A CurtainUp Review
The Heiress

The Heiress is that increasingly unusual event on the London stage, a straightforward play. It may not be at the cutting edge of innovative drama, but that does not preclude it being an enjoyable evening. It's a 1947 adaptation of William James' novel Washington Square by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

Adaptations of loved novels are a risk in the theatre. Much as I love theatre and cinema, as a reader only what is in your mind's eye comes between you and the printed page. That is why I recommend to my daughter that she should try to read the book before she watches the film or stage play or television adaptation. Once you have experienced the visual, it is hard to re-experience the novel as it was meant to be. It is a very long time since I read Henry James' Washington Square so I was judging The Heiress as a independent production rather than as an interpretation of James' novel.

Do not read the next paragraph if you do not want to know the storyline. The Heiress is set in an affluent residential square in New York in 1850. A young woman, Catherine, who is lacking in grace, intelligence and beauty but possessed of a good fortune, is wooed by an attractive young man, Morris Townsend. Townsend has spent his own inheritance. The girl's father, Dr Austin Sloper, bitter at the loss of his wife in childbirth, dislikes his daughter and recognises that Townsend is in love with her money. Sloper interviews Mrs Montgomery, Morris' widowed sister and discovers that Morris gave her no financial help before spending his inheritance. Sloper takes Catherine on an enforced holiday to Europe to test the relationship. While they are away, Morris lives in Washington Square with Catherine's foolish aunt, Lavinia Penniman. On their return Dr Sloper carries out his threats to disinherit his daughter. Catherine and Morris agree to elope but after reflecting on the $10,000 a year rather than $30,000, Morris fails to appear. Two years later, Catherine and Lavinia are living together after the death of Dr Sloper.

Eve Best, who won this year's Olivier for Best Newcomer as Annabella in Tis Pity She's a Whore, plays Catherine with great skill. She appears gauche and tender, shy and very awkward socially. With heavily painted eyebrows to make her look plain and a dreadful hairstyle, we wince at her taste in clothes, at her clumsy attempts at mixing in society but sympathise with her humanity and innocence. She is a victim of her father's cruelty. In love, she is animated and endearing.

Alan Howard's Doctor Sloper is always dislikable; blunt, sour and selfish, he wallows in the loss of Catherine's mother and resents that Catherine is not the image of her mother. He says, "She killed her mother in getting born." Ben Porter plays Morris Townsend as smooth, attractive but feckless. Maggie Steed's Aunt Lavinia is a characterful part, somewhat lacking in subtlety as she contrasts Howard's steely pragmatism with her foolish romanticism. Mrs Montgomery's (Liza Sadovy) calm insistence that Morris had the right to spend his inheritance resonates and underlines the gulf between male and female approaches to parenting in her scene with the humourless doctor.

Gideon Davey's spacious set, in the National's proscenium theatre The Lyttelton, creates a beautiful pale, neo-classical drawing room lit by four large windows with shutters to the left. The men are upright in frock coats and top hats and the women sway in crinolines, apart from the more modestly dressed Mrs Montgomery. Simon Mills' lighting takes us through the seasons in Washington Square, and the hours of the day with delicate light from the windows, or at night from the chandelier.

Director Philip Franks' sleek and elegant production has given us the opportunity to re-examine some of the issues in the play. It is a play about wealth. Sloper has made his fortune because, as a disconsolate widower he threw himself into his work. In the process he neglected his daughter and when she did not turn into the image of her mother, battered her self esteem with constant, carping criticism. It is interesting how often the children of self made men fail to live up to parental expectation. In James' time most would have agreed that Sloper did the right thing in exposing a suitor who was a gold digger. Was he right? If they had married, would Catherine been left at home while Morris wasted her money in a dissolute life style? These are absorbing issues, annd I'm going to re-read the book.

Editor's Note: The film version was notably played by Olivia DeHavilland and Montgomery Clift -- a Lincoln Center revival in New York, proved to be a Tony winning role for Cherry Jones. Her father was played by Philip Bosco, the Niels Bohr of the America production of Copenhagen.

Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on Henry James' novel Washington Square
Directed by Philip Franks

Starring: Alan Howard
With: Eve Best, Maggie Steed, Ben Porter, Ann Bell, Liza Sadovy, Sophie Shaw, Caroline Faber, Vincent Penfold,
Design: Gideon Davey
Lighting Design: Simon Mills
Sound Design: Huw Williams
Music: Matthew Scott
Running time: Three hours with an interval
A Royal National Theatre and Sheffield Theatres production at The Lyttelton Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, London SE1 9PX
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 4th July 2000 and then on a UK tour
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th June 2000 performance at The Lyttelton RNT London SE1

ęCopyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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